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Behind the Scenes: an Archivist Draws on Myriad Experiences

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Below is an interview with Kristen Sosinski, Archivist in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

Kristen teleworking from home. Photo by Scott Brownell, 2020.

Melissa: Can you tell us about your background, and how you came to work as an archivist in the Prints & Photographs Division?

Kristen: Yes, I got my start in college where I had a work-study job in the university’s library. I earned a BFA in painting from Boston University and upon graduating I realized that the stability of library work was a better alternative to becoming a starving artist. I worked as a library technician for the National Gallery of Art and also for three different divisions within the Library of Congress (Law, Conservation, and Prints & Photographs). While working as a technician I earned my MLIS from Catholic University because by that point I knew librarianship was for me and was eager for new challenges.

After more than a decade of technician level jobs and applying to many, many librarian/archivist jobs with no success, I threw in the towel and decided that a career in the library/archives field just wasn’t meant to be for me. I started applying for jobs outside that career path and landed in the Visual Arts Division of the US Copyright Office as a Copyright Examiner. It was a perfect fit and was a truly unique job which both challenged and motivated me every day for the four years I held that position. And then in 2019, the Prints & Photographs Division posted new archivist positions, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Any librarian would love a drawing of a card catalog but the one below from 1905 (which connects different areas of my career at the Library) is extra special for Library of Congress employees as it depicts the card catalogs used in the United States Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress. My favorite part is the side view at the bottom right which shows one drawer pulled out.

Miscellaneous fixtures, equipment, and finishes (“furniture”) and alterations to the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Card file case for Copyright Office. Elevation and sections. 1905.

Because the Prints & Photographs Division’s collections are so varied, it is not uncommon to find images that resonate. This next image relates more to my personal life, as it shows the site of Patsy Cline’s last concert before her fateful plane trip, and, the site of my high school graduation ceremony.

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building, Route 69, Kansas City, Kansas. Photo by John Margolies, 1994.

Melissa: What does an archivist do?

Kristen: An archivist organizes, describes, preserves and makes unique materials accessible to the public. In the Prints & Photographs Division, archivists are tasked with processing large collections. Generally speaking archives work in our division involves: surveying the collection; meeting with reference librarians and curators to hear about their challenges using the collection in its current unprocessed state; and developing a team-based plan that mitigates these challenges and creates an efficient workflow. Once the plan is approved, the archivist processes the collection and is responsible for creating the necessary tools such as a database to capture metadata, training team members, and conducting quality review to ensure accurate work. The end result is often an online finding aid or records accessible through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

Melissa: Can you tell us about one project you’re working on?

Kristen: I am currently developing plans to process the photographic archive of the American Red Cross. Nearly 19,000 glass negatives from the collection were digitized in 2017 and I am addressing the 42,000 unprocessed photographs. The collection documents the organization’s activities and personnel, with an emphasis on WWI relief, US disaster relief, and educational programs such as public health, nursing, and life-saving. I had the opportunity to work on the collection as a technician and I fell in love with it so I am thrilled to have the opportunity of working with a team to increase its visibility and accessibility.

The following is my favorite image in this post because it embodies my two favorite collections: the Visual materials from the John J. Pershing papers and the American National Red Cross Collection.

General Pershing cables “No other organization since the world began has ever done such great constructive work with the efficiency, dispatch and understanding, often under adverse circumstances, than has been done in France by American Red Cross in the last six months.” 1917.

Melissa: How has telework changed your job?

Kristen: Obviously, we cannot take the collections home with us to work on them, so physical processing paused. That said, our job is more than just physically arranging and housing collection items. There is an enormous amount of preparation work that must be done for each collection we work on. In addition to developing processing plans, the archivists are converting findings aids that were previously only available in paper form in the Reading Room to be accessible online. Training and updating documentation is also well suited for telework. With creative thinking a great deal can be accomplished even though we aren’t able to physically have our hands in the collections.

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